Nick Adams and the "Idealized Self"
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Copyright © 1998 by Timeless Hemingway
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It has long been a misconception among the most sagacious of critics that the Hemingway hero is solely a representation of the author himself. Philip Young's versatile description of Nick Adams helps to explain the bewilderment of those who've attempted to
decipher the autobiographical origins of the Hemingway hero:
Here is a sensitive, humorless, honest, rather passive male. He is the outdoor man, who revels in the life of the senses, loves to hunt and fish and takes pride in his knowledge of how to do such things. He is virile even as an adolescent, and very conscious
of his nerve; maturity has forced a reckoning with his nerves as well. Once grown, he is a man who knows his way around, but he is superstitious, too, and is developing a complex ritual whereby thinking can be stopped, the evil spirits placated and warded off.1
The assorted contradictions should be immediately evident. Nick is a "passive male" but "loves to hunt and fish." He is "sensitive" but also "virile even as an adolescent." He "takes pride in his knowledge of how to do things" (things not limited to just hunting and fishing)
but is "superstitious" as a grown man. Though Nick is "very conscious of his nerve," he continually tries to develop a "complex ritual whereby thinking can be stopped, the evil spirits placated and warded off."
Judging from the various idiosyncrasies, Nick Adams seems to possess a personality almost as enigmatic as Hemingway's. Joseph Flora has stated, "In the Nick Adams stories Hemingway defined key aspects of his personality more revealingly than he ever did in direct
statements about his own life"2. I find myself in disagreement with this assertion. What Hemingway has defined in the Nick Adams stories, more so than the key aspects of his personality, are the key aspects of his experience. Therefore,
we must analyze how Hemingway's "idealized self" is conceptualized through the experiences of Nick Adams.
"Indian Camp" introduces Nick Adams at an early stage in his psychological development. Several critics believe him to be in the vicinity of eight to ten years of age.3 The story begins with Nick and his father's arrival at an Indian camp where an Indian woman
"had been trying to have her baby for two days" (8). Uncle George also accompanies his brother and nephew on this boat trip across the lake.
With his first steps into one of the lamp-lit "shanties," Nick takes on the role of passive observer, closely studying the medical dexterity of his father, who attends to the screaming Indian woman. Nick's passivity does not dissuade his "pride in his knowledge of how to do things."
When his father states that the women is having a baby, Nick says he knows. However, his naiveté is apparent in his inability to associate the cries of the woman with the natural pains of childbirth. Nick seems more concerned with how to control the frequency of the woman's
cries than he is with the reasons for their occurrence: "Oh, Daddy, can't you give her something to make her stop screaming?" (8). The doctor's solemn yet mundane reply, "No. I haven't any anesthetic … But her screams are not important" (8), is evidence
that Nick's concern for the woman's welfare surpasses his father's and also an indication that the skillful doctor has begun to lose control of the situation.
After he delivers the infant and even comments on the passive role of his son—"How do you like being an interne?" (9)—Dr. Adams checks on the Indian father, who had been resting quietly in the top bunk recuperating from a foot injury suffered "three days before" (8).
Finding that the man had slit his throat (like Nick, he couldn't bear the screams), Dr. Adams tells Uncle George to take Nick outside. But, as the narrator informs us, "There was no need of that. Nick, standing in the door of the kitchen, had a good view of the upper bunk when his father,
the lamp in one hand, tipped the Indian's head back" (10).
Wanting to compensate for his father's powerlessness in preventing the suicide, Nick becomes extremely inquisitive with his father on the walk back to the boat and continually refers to him as "Daddy." Critics have interpreted Nick's continual use of the word "Daddy" as a conscious
reinstatement of his father's masculine authority. The last line of the story, however, complicates such an interpretation: "In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die" (11). Joseph DeFalco has detected the ambiguity
in this final sentence: "The irony enters in the portrait of the young Nick 'sitting in the stern,' implying that he is in control of the boat—events; yet it is the father who rows, and he has already proven ineffectual for such a role"4. Though it's difficult to decisively determine who
is controlling the boat, the fact that Nick "felt quite sure that he would never die" shows how he evades the reality of the Indian father's death in order to control his own fear of death. By immersing himself in the security of past knowledge and experience, Nick can better cope with the uncertainty
of the present experience. His inclination towards self-preservation is the first stage in the conceptualization of Hemingway's "idealized self."
The discovery of a masculine identity through relational experience is the second stage in the conceptualization of Hemingway's "idealized self." In "The End of Something," Nick Adams discovers his distinct masculine self by negating his social attachment to others. He and his girlfriend
Marjorie have decided to spend the night fishing on Horton's Bay. As their boat drifts along the "dark water," Marjorie notices the deserted lumber mill: "There's our old ruin, Nick," Marjorie said (24). Nick, who at this point is rowing the boat, nonchalantly replies, "There it is" (24). Describing the mill,
Marjorie remarks: "It seems more like a castle" (24). The narrator now answers for Nick: "Nick said nothing. They rowed on out of sight of the mill, following the shore line" (24). This is one example of how Hemingway uses location as a stylistic device to control his narrative. Once Marjorie and Nick have
"rowed on out of sight of the mill" (24), they leave the familiarity and security of the past, and head towards an uncertain present where dissension and discontentment likely await.
After they've found a suitable spot, they begin setting their lines, and Nick, of course, must show his "pride in his knowledge of how to do such things." When Marjorie observes that the trout are "feeding," Nick hastily replies, "But they won't strike" (24). When she skins a perch, he watches carefully
and advises, "You don't want to take the ventral fin out … It'll be all right for bait but it's better with the ventral fin in" (24). Nick demonstrates the same authoritative control that as a child he had tried to reinstate in his father after the Indian's suicide. With Marjorie, he must reaffirm his own authoritative control.
As Thomas Strychacz reminds us, "To be male is not the same thing as being a man, but what is a man if Marjorie can possess all the requisite attributes?"5 His statement accurately depicts the gender-coined power struggles developing between Nick and Marjorie. If she has begun to embody
a multi-talented female unusually proficient in fishing, Nick in turn embodies the typically threatened male, insecure about his masculinity.
As they set their lines for more trout, "Marjorie rowed up the point a little way so she would not disturb the line. She pulled hard on the oars and the boat went way up the beach" (25). Recall that earlier in the story it was Nick rowing the boat. Hemingway includes this narrative detail to signify the impending
shift of control in their relationship.
Once on shore, Marjorie asks, "What's the matter, Nick?" (25). Nick succinctly replies, "I don't know" (25). While they sit "on the blanket without touching each other" (26), he finally admits, "It isn't fun any more" (26). Not only does he not specify what "isn't fun" (hence the title of the story, "The End of Something"),
but he also burdens Marjorie with the responsibility of defining their relationship. Letting her decide the fate of their union allows him to distance himself from her. In Nick's mind, his relationship with Marjorie had ended when they first set out on their nighttime trip.
Marjorie accepts Nick's rejection nobly and even tries to regain some of the personal control she now feels she has lost: "I'm going to take the boat … You can walk back around the point" (27). Conscious of her attempt to upset the equilibrium of control, Nick in selfish haste says, "I'll push the boat off for you" (27).
Refusing his offer, Marjorie manages well on her own, pushing the boat into the water, using the soothing moonlight to guide her way home.
When Marjorie is gone, Nick lies alone on the blanket: "He lay there for a long time" (27). This is Hemingway's subtle way of saying, "he thought a lot." His friend, Bill, who just happens to be tromping through the woods at this precise moment, finds him by the fire. Interested only in the outcome of the night's events,
Bill does very little to console his friend, not that Nick is in need of compassion or sympathy. For him, to be masculine is to be detached, alone and untouchable. (Though he had first needed to be in a relational experience and then separate himself from that relational experience to discover his true masculine identity.) His
orchestrated evening with Marjorie is deemed a success once the narrator states, "Bill didn't touch him, either" (27). Nick has truly remained untouchable.
The third stage in the conceptualization of Hemingway's "idealized self" is the need to define a vision of heroism in the face of social opposition. In "Fathers and Sons," Nick Adams defines not only the heroic image of his father but also the heroic image of himself. Driving through an unfamiliar town on a "traffic-less Sunday"
with his young son asleep in the seat next to him, passing the "corn fields" and "thickets" of the countryside, Nick is suddenly reminded of his father. Though "it was not his country," Nick still finds it "good to drive through and to see" (55). Here again, Hemingway uses location as a stylistic device to control the narrative of
his prose. It is the orientation of the "corn fields" and "thickets" that trigger in Nick the remembrance of his father.
As Nick begins thinking of his father, he first recalls the physical attributes, "the big frame, the quick movements, the wide shoulders, the hooked, hawk nose" (56) and the eyes that saw with the accuracy of a "big-horn ram" or an "eagle" (56). He admires his father's eyes only as they are used for hunting. It matters very
little to him what other purposes these eyes might have served.
Nick also remembers the less physical characteristics of his father, that he was "sentimental" and "had much bad luck" (56). These qualities seem to have contributed to his father's tragic demise: "He had died in a trap that he had helped only a little to set, and they had all betrayed him in their various ways before he died" (56).
To displace the responsibility for his father's death on "they" (most likely society or family members), Nick generalizes that "all sentimental people are betrayed so many times" (56). By reducing the exclusivity of his father's weakness, he also reduces its culpability in his death, thus leaving the heroic image of the man intact.
During his reverie, Nick recalls an occasion when the heroic image of his father had been threatened. After being introduced to the word "mashing" in the morning newspaper, Nick is curious to know its significance. As he has done before in "Indian Camp," he appeals to his father as the knowledgeable authority. His father tells him
that "mashing" is masturbation and if practiced regularly "produced blindness, insanity, and death" (57). Not entirely satisfied with the superficial explanation he receives, Nick's curiosity about "mashing" persists. He wonders if his father has ever committed what he condemns as "one of the most heinous of crimes" (57). In reminding himself that
"his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen" (57), Nick quickly absolves him of such guilt. After all, "Nick had loved him very much and for a long time" (58).
Nick's struggle to control the heroic image of his father and, more importantly, the heroic image of himself is most evident in his elusive manner of answering the questions of his once sleeping son: "What was it like, Papa, when you were a little boy and used to hunt with the Indians?" (62). Initially, Nick is selective in what he reveals to his son:
"We used to go all day to hunt black squirrels … My father only gave me three shells a day because he said that would teach me to hunt and it wasn't good for a boy to go banging around." (63). Having inherited his father's zealous curiosity, the boy hungers for specifics: "But what were they like to be with?" (63). Nick debates
whether he should tell the boy about his sexual experiences with Trudy and her "hard little breasts, well holding arms" and "quick searching tongue" (63). Most parents recognize the potential harm of divulging explicit sexual details to an impressionable child. Such a concept, though, is foreign to Nick because of the frankness his father had
exhibited in expressing his opinions of "mashing."
Ann Edwards Boutelle has surmised that Nick Adams creates more than just a heroic image of his father but also a wish-fulfilling desire for his death. In reference to "Fathers and Sons," she writes:
It is the only Nick Adams story about the father-son relationship written after Dr. Hemingway's death, and it can be read—although so far it has not been—as a public confession of Hemingway's complicity in his father's suicide. In addition, it bears out the thesis I have been developing about the earlier Nick Adams
stories by once again linking the figures of a dead Indian and a dead father (or rather a wished-for dead father). And this time the wish for the father's death reaches the conscious level of the mind.6
I am hesitant to accept Boutelle's thesis that Nick's desire for his father's death "reaches the conscious level of the mind." All that should reach the conscious level of the mind pertaining to this story is Hemingway's loss of stylistic control. The once crisp, tight, restrained prose is now plagued by periods of intrusive analysis. The narrator
who once detachedly observed the complexities of the world now tries to understand and rationalize them. The narrative distance, which had been so meticulously incorporated in the earlier Nick Adams fiction through the use of location, omission and organization shows its first signs of escaping.
Keeping in mind that Hemingway had written "Fathers and Sons" about four years after his father's suicide, it would seem natural for him to have lost much of the narrative distance so characteristic of the earlier Nick Adams fiction. This loss of narrative distance, however, proved the detrimental beginning of something more tragic for the
Hemingway hero. He was to become a wounded man, a self-fractured individual, physically and psychologically. In Hemingway's later works, such wounds become debilitating adversaries, causing heroes to question their previous sense of identity and control.
1. Philip Young, "Adventures of Nick Adams," In Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Weeks, 111.
2. See Joseph M Flora, Hemingway's Nick Adams, 4.
3. Philip Young claims the age of Nick Adams is never explicitly given in any of the Nick Adams stories. Horst H. Kruse refutes this point, attesting that a close proximity to Nick's age is given in
"The End of Something." See Kruse, "Ernest Hemingway's 'The End of Something': Its Independence As A Short Story And Its Place In The 'Education of Nick Adams,' " Studies in Short Fiction 4 (Winter 1967): 152-166.
4. See Joseph DeFalco, The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories, 32-33.
5. Thomas Strychacz, "In Our Time: Out of Seasons," In The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, ed. Scott Donaldson, 67.
6. Ann Edwards Boutelle, "Hemingway and 'Papa': Killing of the Father in the Nick Adams Fiction," In Journal of Modern Literature, 9 (1981-2), 141.